During a recent meeting with representatives from Eidos and Crystal Dynamics, we were given a guided tour through a small portion of one of Tomb Raider: Legend's levels by the game's producer. The level, which will be the second in the finished game, was set in a large underground tomb that was more reminiscent of the environments in Lara Croft's first adventure than of anywhere you might have spent time in her subsequent outings. The underground tomb was impressively lit by shafts of light coming through cracks in the ceiling, and on the few occasions in which Lara found herself in darkness, she was able to turn on a small shoulder-mounted torch.
There were no enemies for Lara to deal with in the tomb, but if you've played any of the previous Tomb Raider games, you know that much of the challenge often comes from solving puzzles and working out how to get from A to B. Traps have also been a common problem for Lara in the past, and although we didn't get to see her dodging arrows and pits filled with spikes on this occasion, we did get to see a walkway across a chasm crumbling under her feet. In previous games, you might have dealt with Lara's predicament by making a desperate jump for a nearby ledge or something, but on this occasion, the danger took the form of an interactive cutscene in which you're required to perform "super actions" by hitting the correct buttons as they flash up on the screen.
The super action sequence that we were shown required only three or four button presses to beat, but the timing was crucial. The buttons flashing up on the screen used the same control conventions as the rest of the game, so when Lara needed to perform a spectacular leap to avoid a falling column, for example, it was the jump button (X on the PS2) that appeared onscreen. Lara's super action animations were more spectacular than those that you'll see during regular gameplay, because they were tightly scripted specifically for the sequence. We were told that each super action sequence will also have its own hand-animated death visuals waiting for Lara if you mess up, but we didn't get to see any for ourselves on this occasion.
After Lara had successfully negotiated the crumbling walkway and toppling columns, we saw her entering a large room containing all of the props necessary to solve an Indiana Jones-style puzzle. There were giant statues against the walls, a smaller statue of an Anubis-like dog in the middle of the floor with blue gems for eyes, pressure plates in the floor, and a spherical boulder that Lara was able to push and pull around. Needless to say, solving the puzzle required Lara to activate the pressure plates using the boulder (which boasted entirely believable physics), some climbing of statues, and making beams of light hit the dog statue's eyes in order to open a secret passage to the next area. At this point we were treated to a brief in-game cutscene in which Lara retrieves an artifact of some kind and is then contacted by her gadget guy, Zip, who warns her that mercenaries are heading into the tomb via her headset.
We never actually got to see the aforementioned mercenaries showing up, but the Tomb Raider: Legend producer did use the next room to show off some of the new gadgets that Lara will have in her arsenal, which include a magnetic grappling hook and a pair of binoculars equipped with a remote analysis device (RAD). The grappling hook can be attached to any surface in the game that has a slightly artificial-looking sheen when you look at it, and although you'll mostly be using it to swing from or climb up to otherwise inaccessible areas, we also got to see Lara pulling a statue to the ground with it. Unsurprisingly, the binoculars (which come with a powerful zoom function) will mostly be used to examine your surroundings as you try to figure out your next course of action. With the push of a button, your binoculars will use the aforementioned RAD to analyze whichever area you're focusing on and will let you know if it has any useful qualities (such as being flammable or unstable) by illuminating one or more icons along the bottom of the screen.
Before our all-too-brief demonstration of Tomb Raider: Legend came to an end, we were treated to a veritable exhibition of Lara's range of movements as the game's producer negotiated a room full of ledges, platforms, ropes, and such. Jumping between platforms and clinging to narrow ledges is nothing new for Lara, of course, but in Tomb Raider: Legend, you'll find that many of her acrobatics are much more interactive than they've been in previous games in the series. When moving along a narrow ledge that you're hanging from, for example, you'll find that the ledge has been destroyed in some places and the only way for you to pass is to perform a tricky jump-and-grab maneuver that requires split-second timing on the buttons. Mistiming the grab won't necessarily result in you plummeting to the ground (or bottomless pit) below; rather, you'll get a second chance if you manage to press whichever button flashes up on the screen before Lara loses her grip completely. Other moves that we got to see Lara perform included using her arms to propel herself from a ledge to another ledge directly above, and jumping between two walls with surfaces that could be grabbed onto. Classic "flair" moves, such as the swallow dive, and unnecessary handstands and cartwheels when climbing up onto ledges will be available to any of you who can figure out the button combinations necessary to perform them, along with a bunch of new, even showier moves that are being kept under wraps for the moment.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Tomb Raider: Legend during our demonstration--if only because it had to be pointed out to us--was the camera, which never failed to keep up with Lara's acrobatic antics. Crystal Dynamics' goal for the in-game camera, we were told, was to let you control it manually whenever you want to, but to ensure that you'd never actually need to. The camera assumed a garden-variety third-person position behind Lara for the most part, and did an excellent job of keeping her in frame (without being detrimental to the gameplay) whenever the action got a little crazier. We also noticed that the camera would occasionally reposition itself slightly to afford us a view of important objects and such as we passed by them, which has long been a subtle feature of the series, although in previous iterations you'd actually see Lara's head turn, as if she had noticed something of interest.
We left our Tomb Raider: Legend demonstration feeling impressed with what we'd seen and wishing that we'd been allowed to get our hands on the game, if only for a couple of minutes. We're sure to get an opportunity to do that ahead of the game's spring 2006 release date, so look for more coverage on Tomb Raider: Legend in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.